After losing the Super Bowl to the Broncos, the Panthers had a disastrous 2016 season, going 6-10. They needed to make adjustments to the roster to be competitive again this season, and they made those changes.
On defense, they signed Julius Peppers to shore up the pass rush, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to play in the slot, and Mike Adams to add some veteran presence to the safety positon. They also got Luke Kuechly back from a concussion. So far through three games, the defense is holding up its end of the bargain with the top-ranked defense in yards allowed and second in points against.
Where the bulk on the Panthers’ offseason work had to go was getting help for Cam Newton.
Newton didn’t play well in 2016. He played through a shoulder injury the last month of the season and had offseason surgery to fix the issue. The Panthers needed to fill some holes on the offensive line, so they signed left tackle Matt Kalil from Minnesota, the brother of their five-time Pro Bowl center, Ryan Kalil.
The Panthers drafted Taylor Moton in the second round. They already had Greg Olsen, the first tight end in NFL history to have three straight 1,000-yard seasons, Kelvin Benjamin, Devin Funchess and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield. They still needed more weapons for Cam, so they drafted Christian McCaffrey eighth overall and Curtis Samuel early in the second round.
Everything on the offseason checklist was crossed off.
So how, through three weeks, are the Panthers 28th in total offense, 29th in scoring and 30th in passing, red zone and yards per play? And what can they do to improve?
Searching for an offensive identity
When the Panthers drafted those new playmakers, it signaled a change in offensive identity. You don’t draft these guys not to play them, and you play as many as possible by spreading out the offense, which is something the Panthers traditionally hadn’t done as often. Spreading out the offense requires Newton to make quick, precise throws, something he often struggles with.
The Panthers installed a new version of their offense. Newton then missed the entire offseason program and most of camp, and suddenly they have the 28th ranked offense through three weeks.
I live in Charlotte where I dabble in some local media. From the moment the Panthers drafted those guys, coupled with the fact Cam was rehabbing from surgery, I said it would take eight to 10 weeks of the regular season to figure out how to run that offense efficiently.
I based that estimate off all the new offensive installs I’ve been a part of — 2011 in Carolina, 2013 in Kansas City and 2014 in New York. You have to see every play vs. multiple looks and figure out what you’re good at. That estimate is also with a healthy quarterback who excels in the offense you desire to run.
The Panthers have no offensive identity right now as they try figure this out. I’ve been complimentary of (offensive coordinator) Mike Shula in the past because I believe he had designed the perfect offense for Newton. Power running, zone reads, play action passes and deep passes: all things that Cam does well.
Shula said in the offseason he had an idea of what he wanted for this offense, and he’s still trying to figure it out.
Newton is a different quarterback this year
Part of the issue is Newton. He’s not playing well. He missed the offseason and most of camp. This isn’t surprising. I’m not going to belabor this point. He’s not recognizing pressure at times, and he’s also not throwing the deep ball well.
So far this season, according to PFF, Cam is third worst in deep passer rating at 36.5. Last season, his deep passer rating was 87.3. He has also not thrown well on the run, missing easy layups like this one in Week 2 against the Bills. A franchise QB has to make this throw to ice the game:
When the media discusses Newton’s struggles so far, they don’t take into account he’s basically a new quarterback. He’s no longer a running threat, so he’s going to see different defenses than he did in his previous six seasons. What made his 2015 MVP season so special was his ability to use his legs within the offense and his cannon of an arm.
Defenses had to account for the threat of a run. But the running part could only last so long. Eventually that comes to an end for safety concerns. The older you get, the less you want to get hit. Look at the 2015 NFL leaders for rushing at quarterback. Newton with 636 yards, Tyrod Taylor 558, Russell Wilson with 554 and Alex Smith at 498. The following season, Newton was down to 359, Wilson to 259, and Smith to 134.
Even Newton’s rushing yards on first down, which would indicate a designed run more often than not, went from 247 in 2015 to 138 last season and down to 4 yards total in the first three weeks. He is no longer a rushing threat.
The decision to not have Newton be a part of the rushing attack was made before the team drafted McCaffrey and Samuel. Those guys were brought in to help take the pressure off Newton and make the offense more versatile. However, that’s not happening like designed.
The Panthers are going to spread the formations out. Many of their issues on offense are on first-and-10, not gaining enough yards, and then playing from behind the rest of the drive.
This season, the Panthers have lined up in 11 personnel. That’s one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers on 41 of the first-and-10 snaps, and they’re only averaging 3.71 yards per play in this formation, good for 31st in the NFL.
Even worse, they are averaging less than a yard per carry when they run on first-and-10. For comparison, in 2015, the Panthers averaged 3.33 yards a carry in 11 personnel in the same down and distance. When the Panthers add some bulk back into the lineup, with two tight ends, one running back, and two receivers, 19 snaps, the Panthers are averaging 5.68 yards per play. That’s a big difference.
When you run the ball well, you open up play-action passing. In 2016, according to PFF, 19 percent of Newton’s passes were of the play-action variety. These passes tend to have bigger windows and more defined reads for the quarterback. His passer rating was also higher on these attempts compared to the rest of his throws. This season, he doesn’t even have enough play-action snaps to qualify for this stat.
How to use McCaffrey
Also of interest with this offense is how it has been using McCaffrey. In the passing game, he’s been all over the place. He’s been targeted 23 times and caught 18 passes for 173 yards. On the ground, he’s not been as successful, rushing 25 times for 73 yards. Shula has been trying to find ways to get him involved in the offense with formations and motions. And each week, it’s changed.
In Week 1, he was used as a decoy early in the game, and it helped the offense. Notice the linebackers run out of the box with this motion?
But they haven’t used this much since.
In Week 2, against the Bills, he was used on tosses and pitches to get to the edge. It didn’t work well — eight rushes for 10 yards. McCaffrey, for all his quickness, is an inside-the-box runner. That’s what he did best at Stanford:
Last week, the Panthers tried to force-feed McCaffrey the ball in both facets of the game early on, trying to get a spark in the offense. He had 101 yards receiving on nine catches and averaged 4 yards per rushing attempt on four attempts.
So where do the Panthers go from here?
It pains me to say this, because I believe Newton’s career would be shortened by this move and he’d quite possibly get injured again, but you have to start going back to the zone read and power run game with a tight end and fullback.
I don’t think Newton has to keep it as often as he did in 2015 and 2016 on the zone reads, but it has to be a threat. It’s all he’s known in the NFL. He will know the defenses he’s getting and the flow of the offense.
However, if you do that, you give up the option to have all your playmakers on the field at once, unless the Panthers start running some of the college power read shovel plays like the Chiefs are using, similar to the one below. It’s a read play, but the QB would never keep the ball:
If the Panthers move back into the power run game as well, it will open up windows of opportunity for Newton to hit his big wide receivers deep over the middle, where he has thrown well this season.
The offensive line can play better at times, but the Panthers have a quality offensive line. That can’t always be the excuse for Newton’s play at times.
Lastly, a better run game, where Newton is an option, will help immensely in the red zone, where precision throws are required with tight windows. A quick pop pass off a play action would work well here too.
The Panthers have an excellent defense, and if they want to contend with the rest of the NFC South, they’ll need the offense to pick up its play.